Written in partnership with our friends at Etta Loves
Being a parent or caregiver is probably one of the most exhausting–and rewarding–roles we can experience in our lives. Let’s face it, some days feel long. If your little one isn’t yet sitting up or walking, you might think, “What do I do with my baby? How can I play with them?”
As a mom and a speech-language pathologist, I want to share what comes to mind when I hear this question–or better yet, when I find myself asking this question! Here are 5 things you can do daily with your baby to support their communication development, even if they’re not doing much beyond eating and (hopefully) sleeping.
First, help your baby explore their senses
Before a baby can sit up, it may seem like their world is pretty limited–and you’re limited in what you can do with them. One idea is to try playing and interacting with them using a sensory playmat.
As soon as babies are born, they begin to absorb the environment around them. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell–it's a whole new sensory world. This is where sensory playmats come in. A sensory mat is designed to stimulate a baby’s visual sense and their sense of touch. One example is by Etta Loves, an innovative baby brand that creates reversible playmats and other sensory products featuring patterns rooted in research on infant sight and cognitive development. Etta Loves develops their products in partnership with The Baby Lab at The University of Sussex, internationally renowned experts in infant vision. These playmats are a great tool to use when trying the 5 tips in this article!
Sensory playmats offer babies a way to explore their senses, whether they’re in tummy time or just interacting with you.
As a bonus, a sensory playmat can help your baby during “tummy time,” which is important for building strong neck and shoulder muscles and promoting motor development. Some babies don’t enjoy tummy time because it’s hard work. Think about it…many of us like to “distract” ourselves during exercise with TV or music. Babies are the same! They enjoy looking at and listening to the world around them. Sensory playmats offer babies a way to explore their senses, whether they’re in tummy time or just interacting with you.
5 ways to help your baby’s speech and language development
1 Talk to your baby face-to-face
Did you know that speech and language development begins in the first few hours after birth? Babies learn language through listening and observation, and newborns benefit from being talked to immediately after leaving the womb. As a speech therapist and mom, I recommend talking to your child frequently–even if they’re too young to answer you.
Try this: Whether you’re at home or out and about, narrate to your baby what’s happening. Describe how you’re preparing lunch, what you see at the park, or the steps that happen during bathtime. Stimulating your baby's brain with lots of new words and sentences is one of the simplest and best things you can do for them. Try to narrate at least 50% of the tasks you do with your baby each day. You’re sure to see the benefits as they get older.
2 Respond to your baby’s sounds
During the first 6 months of life, your baby should experiment with their little voice by cooing, squealing, laughing, and playing with pitch variations. This is a major part of language growth! Babies learn to use their voice early on, so encourage vocal play by vocalizing back to them and imitating the sounds they make.
Try this: Talk and sing to your baby in response to what they “say” to you. After you make a sound, pause and look at your baby to see if they’ll go back and forth with you. I like to do this while my son and I are hanging out on the couch. I lay him on my legs, facing me, and we talk about our day. Or sometimes he’ll coo when he’s in tummy time on his playmat, and I’ll respond: “I know! This is such hard work. You are growing so big and strong.” These back-and-forth interactions lay the foundation for communication. It’s never too early to start doing this with your little one.
3 Play with toys and incorporate social games
During the first few months of life, babies should begin to shift their eyes and turn their heads in response to a sound. This means they’re becoming more aware of their environment. Around 3 to 6 months, babies should also begin to mouth toys and show interest in toys with sound. These are some of the earliest signs of play, and play is highly correlated to speech and language development.
Try this: I like to use small toys like a lovey or teether while my little one is lying on his playmat. I hold the toy near my face and move it from side to side to help him practice visual tracking. Toys that light up, make sounds, or have a stark visual contrast help draw your baby’s attention. When your baby looks, hand the toy to them so they can practice reaching for and exploring the item.
Play is highly correlated to speech and language development.
Another way I incorporate play into bonding time is by using social games, which help your baby maintain interaction with you. Two classic ones are patty cake and “So big!” My favorite social game is peek-a-boo, where I use my hands to cover my face. You could also use a blanket to cover your face to help draw your baby’s attention.
4 Read books together
Reading is one of the most important ways to grow your baby’s language skills. Research shows that children who hear more language will eventually learn and use more language. When you get in the habit of reading with your baby, you’ll establish a routine for reading early in life. Your child will benefit not only from exposure to new words but also from bonding time with you (even if one of you ends up chewing on the book!).
Try this: We incorporate books into our “wind down” routine. My son enjoys snuggling and listening to me read aloud. But, to be honest, I don’t always read the book word for word. Sometimes I like to talk about the things I see on the pages. For example, I might say, “Wow! A dog. Woof woof.”
As you read, keep it interesting by using different tones of voice. Repeat the words and sounds you’d like to emphasize and say them slowly to help them stick.
Some books are better for reading with your baby than others. Look for books with big, bright pictures, rhyming words, and repetitive words and sentences. Your little one will benefit from hearing them over and over. Here are some of my favorite books for babies:
Touch and Feel - Animals
First 100 Words
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
5 Sing songs
Songs and nursery rhymes are a wonderful way to boost your baby’s early language skills. Babies become more attentive to music as they grow. This is a skill that links to hearing and comprehension abilities. Even though our babies aren’t singing along, they most likely are looking at us and maybe even smiling!
Try this: I like to use repetitive songs and nursery rhymes, such as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; Open, Shut Them; and Wheels on the Bus. These are just a few favorites I sing while my little one lies on his playmat and kicks his feet. Believe me when I say your baby doesn’t care if you have a good singing voice. To them, your voice is the most beautiful and comforting sound in their world!
Make language development part of everyday life
As caregivers, we have a lot on our plate, and it may feel impossible to get everything done. I like to remind myself that I don’t have to set aside time in my day to focus on speech and language development. We do a lot of these things naturally, without even knowing! You can even build these activities into your daily routine: reading or singing with your child before nap or bedtime, or even just talking to your baby about the things you see while driving. Although these activities seem small, they make a very big impact!